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Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates Agree On Much, But Have Different Life Stories

The Democratic candidates for governor, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, have many of the same political ideas.

They favor the continuation of the Medicaid Expansion program, they favor a strong infrastructure program and they want dark money removed from politics.

They were in Havre Saturday addressing Hill County Democrats and campaigning around town.

Both men vow that win or lose, they will support the Democratic ticket because they say it is vital to keep up the good work of the last two Democratic administrations. And they say there will be dire consequences for Montana if the Republican candidate wins. Both believe it will be U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte.

Schreiner and Cooney say they’re good friends, and that this will be a clean campaign, Cooney said with a twinkle in his eye.

But they tell markedly different stories about how they got into politics.

Cooney, 62, was born and raised in Butte, where politics is a second religion and Democratic politics is a given.  His grandfather Frank Henry Cooney was governor in the 1930s. Grandson Mike became interested in politics as a teen and ran for the Montana House when he was 21.

He has been a fixture in Montana politics ever since. He served in the Montana House, was an aide to then-Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, was elected to the Montana Senate, served three terms as secretary of state, and in 2000 ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

“I thought that was it for politics for me,” he said, after coming in third in the Democratic Party’s three-man primary.

But then in 2015, when Lt. Gov. Angela McLean suddenly resigned, Gov. Steve Bullock asked him to serve as lieutenant governor.

He served as Bullock’s surrogate, speaking on behalf of his re-election and for the political beliefs the two share.

“I was honored to be named lieutenant governor, but even then I didn’t think I would ever run for governor,” he said, reflecting on those years.

But then people started talking about the importance of the election and how he was the one to carry the mantle for the party and what it stood for.

So he’s taking his impassioned oratory to all parts of the state, vowing not to follow what some say is the Democrats’ tradition of concentrating on Montana’s seven largest cities and seven Native reservations.

Casey Schreiner, middle, hangs out and chats with fellow Democrats during a picnic in Havre’s Pepin Park on Saturday. (Teresa Getten, photo)

Schreiner, 37, traces his start in politics to a middle school girl in his class at the alternative high school in Great Falls where he taught.

When another teacher was sick and unable to accompany her class on a field trip to the state Capitol, he was pressed into service.

During the tour, one of the students asked his opinion of something they had heard. He said he didn’t think it was right for a teacher to comment. She suggested that might be a good reason for him to get involved.

That started the wheels turning.

As luck would have it, in the Capitol hallways he ran into state Sen. Anders Blewett, D-Great Falls. Blewett told him the incumbent in his House district was not running for re-election and if he was interested he should go for it.

He went for it and was elected in 2012.

Schreiner was elected House minority leader for the recently completed session, where he worked across the aisle with Republicans, especially the more moderate members in the Solutions Caucus, to pass Medicaid Expansion, firefighters’ insurance and an infrastructure program. Hardcore Republicans mockingly called him the majority leader because he controlled so much legislation.

Personal experience convinced him that health-care reform was vital. Changes are needed in everything from the cost of health care to insurance to pharmaceuticals.

Health care is and will always be the driving force in his campaign, Schreiner said. 

His father was a hospital orderly, but realized that if he wanted to take care of his family, he would have to earn more.

So he commuted from Great Falls to Havre, where he got his nursing degree from what was then Northern Montana College.

His father had Type 2 diabetes and died at age 60, Schreiner said. He cut back on his dosage of insulin so he would have some money left to spend on his family.

“I’m convinced that’s why he died,” Schreiner said. “No Montanan, no person, should have to make the choice between medicine and providing for his family.”

He has three children, two of whom are on the autism spectrum.

Because of services available and paid for through his insurance, one of those children will start school this fall as a traditional student, Schreiner said. He thinks the same level of service should be available for everybody.

His first son was born prematurely. Medical care for the first day of his life was $60,000, he said. Insurance companies at first said they wouldn’t cover the costs, creating fear in the family.

No one will ever have to convince him that Montana should have medical care available to all.

Schreiner said he too will be traveling to all parts of the Treasure State. That will be the cornerstone of his campaign, visiting with folks throughout the state.

But he said it will be necessary to raise money and he will be do that as well.

Cooney said that raising money will be the least favorite part of his campaign, but he will do it.

But in the race to raise funds, especially in the general election, Democrats will come in second place, Cooney said.

“We can’t outraise the Republicans,” he said, echoing Schreiner’s thoughts.”We can raise enough to be competitive and then outwork them.”

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